Access to quality and affordable homes is critical to building sustainable, healthy communities. Through our lending and research practices, Reinvestment Fund is committed to increasing access to housing that is affordable and safe for all people. In addition to lending to develop affordable housing, Reinvestment Fund has also long studied how to improve equity in the eviction process. This month, we are honored to feature the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and its work to ensure safe and stable housing.
Michael Lucas, Executive Director, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation
As I crossed over the seven-month mark of taking over as Executive Director here at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), where I have been honored to work for the last twelve years, I could not help but reflect on just how far AVLF has come thanks to the support from this community. Five years ago, we decided to focus on the most fundamental issues of safety and stability through our intimate partner abuse and tenants’ rights work. With that focus, we were able to be intentional about going deeper and stronger—deeper into the community, stronger with our services, taking a more holistic approach to standing with our clients.
The result of that decision to stay focused, ironically, led to unprecedented growth. We were ten staff; now we are a team of forty-eight and a majority people of color. We have become an impassioned and impactful collection of lawyers, social workers, and community advocates. We were, as a staff, largely confined to our downtown office in Peachtree Center; now our staff is spread out and deeply in the community, dealing more directly with trauma – theirs and that of our clients – as they work out of schools, community centers, and directly with clients where they live. We now operate out of twelve satellite offices in addition to our main office, ten in APS schools and two in the Fulton County courthouse.
Reflecting further on the challenges we have faced during the pandemic, I realized that our evolution as an organization prepared us to step up and play a meaningful role in our community’s response to the pandemic. We entered 2020 as a large and creative team that could better adapt to changing conditions. We entered 2020 better known and trusted within so many communities hit hard during the pandemic. We entered 2020 with more expertise than ever on landlord-tenant and intimate partner abuse issues, and with a much greater capacity to pivot to emergency rental assistance and virtual legal services.
So when COVID-19 changed the world, we were ready, and from the lived experiences and lessons taught by both our staff and our clients, we knew that people of color – as well as low-income tenants and survivors of intimate partner abuse, specifically – are often more vulnerable in a time of crisis. As the largest provider of holistic legal services to both tenants and survivors in Atlanta, and with a client population that is over 90% percent people of color, we also knew that we had to do more to be part of the community response. As they always do, our amazing team responded with innovation, dedication, and compassion.
Instead of stepping back when times became challenging for us, AVLF took a risk and stepped up in three critical areas in particular: holistic legal services for tenants, legal services and supports for survivors of intimate partner abuse, and the provision of emergency rental and utility assistance. Along the way, we not only helped over a thousand families secure safer and more stable homes, we also learned a lot of lessons, applicable beyond the pandemic, about the provision of those services.
Stepping up to address the looming eviction crisis was particularly important. Across the five-county Atlanta metropolitan area, experts at the Atlanta Regional Commission estimate that since April 2020 there have been nearly 75,000 eviction filings through the end of July. Never knowing for sure whether and when moratoriums would be put in place or expire, our team immediately pivoted to make our every-Saturday weekend clinic virtual. Additionally, we felt we could not pull back on our planned expansion of the Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC), our courthouse-based tenant clinic, which ended up helping hundreds of tenants avoid displacement during COVID-19 by helping them navigate a process that was more confusing than ever. Now staffed with a full-time managing attorney, full-time paralegal, and teams of volunteer attorneys, HCAC helped over 800 tenants in 2020 and is on track to help over 1,000 in 2021. In 2020 alone, HCAC helped complete 187 CDC moratorium declarations for tenants, many of whom were not even aware of the protection.
Our separate eviction defense program used the time during court closures and eviction moratoriums to hold dozens of on-line volunteer attorney trainings, training over 200 new attorneys for our eviction defense force. With our neighborhood-based Standing with Our Neighbors program, our team had to get creative when their full-time offices inside APS Title I schools were closed due to COVID. Scouring court dockets, sending out postcards, and keeping in touch with clients however they safely could, our community-based team continued to innovate to stop displacement and help tenants secure safe and healthy living conditions.
In our biggest pivot yet, our relatively new community assistance team made the decision to assist the City of Atlanta in distributing federal COVID-related emergency rental and utility assistance. Including the rental assistance we received from private philanthropy, and homelessness prevention assistance we receive from the City of Atlanta, AVLF is on pace to have distributed approximately $3,000,000 in rental assistance to landlords and utilities on behalf of tenants who would have otherwise been displaced. We see this as a natural extension and part of our comprehensive support of tenants. During COVID, the more tenants who avoid displacement with the help of rental assistance, the more resources we can then devote to those who will need legal help as the moratoriums lift and the surge of evictions hits Atlanta.
The pandemic was also not the time to pull back our community-based advocates who help reach survivors of intimate partner violence who are isolated and trapped with their abusers, something that became more common during the pandemic. Launched in 2019, AVLF’s Standing with Survivors (SwS) initiative allowed AVLF to meet survivors where they are, reaching those who would otherwise never make it to the courthouse to receive the services they need to achieve real safety and self-sufficiency. Through partnerships with the Atlanta Police Department, AVLF’s team regularly answers calls from officers seeking assistance in responding to an incident of domestic violence. That cooperation has helped avoid confrontation, escalation, and violence, and promoted overall improved law-enforcement response to domestic violence calls. The initiative is also proving that we can connect survivors with life-saving legal and social services in the community before it is too late. This ability became critically important during the pandemic.
In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Ms. C (name redacted for privacy) contacted AVLF. She was trapped in her residence with her abuser. She could safely communicate with AVLF via email, but phone calls could put her in danger. An AVLF attorney determined when it would be safe and was later able to reach her by phone. Ms. C. described the horrific abuse she had been experiencing while trapped in the house with her abuser. With the careful planning of AVLF, Ms. C was able to attend a remote Ex-Parte Temporary Protective Order hearing one morning while barricaded in her bathroom to avoid her abuser. Through that Protective Order, Ms. C got sole possession of her home back. AVLF’s SwS team created a plan to safely and quickly get Ms. C’s abuser served with the Protective Order and removed from the home, closely coordinating with APD and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. When Ms. C called 911, officers were at the ready and arrived within seconds of the call, serving the abuser and ensuring Ms. C’s safety. Ms. C is a perfect example of who AVLF is striving to reach before it is too late.
On our way to helping thousands of Atlantans – and counting – during the pandemic, we learned a few valuable lessons that we will take with us into 2022 and beyond.
First, building on our focus on “equitable access,” we learned that we could reach more otherwise-isolated clients – and reach them before it is too late — by maintaining the virtual connection to our clinics and the courts. Going forward, our programs will operate as hybrids, offering both in-person and virtual ways to get help.
Second, we learned a lot about the importance of self-care for our staff. During the pandemic, we invested in self-care stipends for our staff who continue to persevere through sixteen months of incredibly difficult – and sometimes, traumatizing – work. Going forward, we will maintain that investment in our staff.
Third, we learned the value of being a community-based agency with experience, trust, and presence on the ground. When effectively getting emergency rental assistance to tenants became difficult through centralized, hard-to-navigate systems, it was the in-the-neighborhood, hands-on, personalized help from community providers – AVLF and others – that helped those in need access and successfully complete application processes that were the barriers to help for far too many during the pandemic. Going forward, we will prioritize and advocate for systems that incorporate strong neighborhood-based outreach and help for emergency assistance programs and other supports.
Finally, we were constantly reminded that the systems we had in place – and the state of affairs – before the pandemic were not acceptable for our neighbors seeking safe and stable homes. The goal cannot be to “get back to normal” in Atlanta. Housing affordability, eviction, unhealthy living conditions, and the isolation of survivors of intimate partner abuse were all crisis-level issues before the pandemic. COVID-19 brought more attention to many of these issues. That is a good thing.
When we emerge from the pandemic, however, we must not let our focus or our concern wane. Atlantans will still be living in crisis. AVLF will still stand with them. We will remain committed to helping them maintain safe and stable homes and families, but we will not be able to do it alone. Stand with us. Stand with Atlanta. You can start by learning more about AVLF’s work in the community, the issues we address, or how to support our programs – with your time, money, or both – by visiting www.avlf.org.
Originally published in the Saporta Report, August 23, 2021